ROCKVILLE — The County Council has less than one week to vote on small cell antennas, as an Oct. 31 deadline is approaching.
A zoning text amendment to facilitate the deployment of small cell antennas and towers, which was set to be voted on Tuesday, has now been delayed – giving the Council a few more days to find a compromise.
For more than two years, the County Council has tried to figure out a way to help facilitate the deployment of the small cell antennas, which telecommunication companies say are needed for 4G and eventually 5G service, as well as accommodate the concerns of residents about them.
But after about an hour-and-a-half of debating one proposed amendment on the ZTA at Tuesday’s meeting, a meeting in which Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large) scheduled a vote, it was delayed after a recess, because he realized the differences among members of the County Council were not reconcilable at the moment.
“I think our leadership here is in the spotlight. That people who are making telecommunications policy at the federal level are watching us,” Riemer said.
For more than two years the Council has tried to figure out a way to pass a ZTA to facilitate at the deployment of the small cells, which are restricted under current County zoning laws. Public opposition to the ZTA the Council has proposed has been immense, with many Montgomery County residents protesting the small cell antennas because of concern over local control over their neighborhoods and health concerns about the radiation the antennas emit.
For most of the allotted time, members of the Council debated the specifics of a proposed amendment by Tom Hucker (D-5) that would change the zoning of the utility poles that the antennas would go on from limited to conditional use – giving an appeal process to residents.
While Hucker’s amendment did pass 6-3, the 90-minute debate accomplished little as instead of voting on the ZTA, members of the County Council debated proposed amendments that either would place greater restrictions on the small cell antennas or instead called for an outright delay of the bill.
The delay is troublesome for members of the County Council who are in favor of the ZTA, led by Riemer, because of an Oct. 31 deadline to act on zoning changes before the Nov. 6 election. If the Council fails to pass the ZTA it will have to wait at least until January, when at least four new members of the County Council will get a turn to weigh in the issue.
That wait could trigger legal action from telecommunication companies, arguing the County is violating federal law by restricting the implementation of their wireless technology.
George Levnethal (D-at large), said the issue is not “if but when” the small cells antennas are implemented, adding there is little the County Council can do to block their eventual deployment.
“I continue to believe that it is inventible that 5G is going to be distributed throughout Montgomery County,” Leventhal said. “The question that faces us now is how much time do we spend in court, how many times does the County Council, the future County Council, come back to this issue.”
Leventhal then challenged Hucker, asking him if the Council were to adopt his amendment and along with any other amendment the Council approved, would he vote for the ZTA.
“I’m thinking about it,” Hucker said.
Riemer, who is the lead sponsor of the ZTA, has used urgency to pass the ZTA, saying that the County has no choice because of federal laws that will supersede any County action, But members spent much of their time Tuesday debating that point.
Council member Sidney Katz (D-3) and Marc Elrich (D-at large) said they will vote against the ZTA, even with amendments, saying they want to push amendments to make it better.
“I would prefer the best bad bill,” Elrich said.
Federal law prevents local jurisdictions from banning the implementation of wireless infrastructure. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission has passed regulations, making it harder for jurisdictions to regulate small cell antennas heavily.
Riemer has stressed the importance of passing his ZTA as the County looks to challenge FCC orders in court, saying the ZTA he proposed could be used in evidence in court that the County is not trying to prohibit the deployment of wireless infrastructure.
Council member Roger Berliner (D-1) said he was skeptical that amending the ZTA would open up the County to preemption by the federal or state government.
Riemer could not confirm whether the Council will take up the bill at its last opportunity, on Tuesday, the last County Council meeting before the Oct. 31 deadline.